The 10 most popular Nat Geo stories of 2020

COVID-19 dominated our readers' attention in 2020—but murder hornets swarmed in as well.

Photo Mosaic by Nina Westcott
Read Caption

In a year full of historic challenges, Nat Geo readers sought out information on the science behind the coronavirus—and how the pandemic was affecting them and their communities.

Photo Mosaic by Nina Westcott

There has never been a year like 2020. As the world battled the COVID-19 pandemic, it was also confronted by record-shattering wildfires, mass protests against police brutality, a historically divisive U.S. presidential election, and a plague of desert locusts. This year also brought a new era for spaceflight, the return of Tasmanian devils to mainland Australia, and the end of history’s second-largest Ebola outbreak.

These stories were all incredibly important. But, for Nat Geo readers, the pandemic dominated. Most of our top-read stories of the year tackled the science behind the disease and explored how the world sought to stem its spread, and its effects on both humans and wildlife. (The arrival of murder hornets, too, got our readers’ attention.) Here are our top 10 stories from 2020.

View Images

As the normally bustling canals of Venice became deserted amid pandemic quarantines, viral social media posts claimed swans and dolphins were returning to the waters. It wasn't true. The canal water, nonetheless, is clearer because of the decrease in boat activity.

It’s no surprise that people looked for good news wherever they could find it during such a difficult year. But sometimes that news was too good to be true—including reports of wild animals flourishing in cities quieted by pandemic lockdowns.

As Nat Geo’s Natasha Daly reported in our top story of 2020, these stories of swans returning to Venetian canals and drunk elephants wandering into a Chinese tea garden were faked. Daly also explains why we wanted so badly to believe in these stories—and offers examples of real good news about how wildlife benefited from our lifestyle changes during the pandemic.

Back in February, little was known about the novel coronavirus that was ripping its way through China—and soon would be criss-crossing the world. But we did know how past zoonotic coronaviruses such as SARS and MERS could cast a storm over the whole human body.

By combining research on the new outbreak with lessons learned from those diseases, Nat Geo explained what happens inside the body when it is infected by the coronavirus—from hole-punched lungs to blood storms brought on by an immune system response.

This wasn’t the first year that the world learned how to social distance. In 1918, a deadly strain of influenza known as the Spanish flu spread across the world, prompting cities to shut down public gathering spaces. Some fared better than others, however.

Weekly deaths per 100,000 from 1918 pandemic above the expected rate

Duration of social

distancing measures

Philadelphia

Deaths per 100,000 after

24 weeks of pandemic

748

250

200

Philadelphia waited 8 days after their death rate spiked to ban gatherings and close schools. They endured the highest peak death rate of 43 cities studied.

150

100

50

0

1

8

Weeks

16

24

Sep. 11 1918

Feb. 19 1919

San Francisco

673

Deaths per 100,000

150

After relaxing social distancing measures,

San Francisco faced

a strong second wave of deaths.

100

50

0

1

8

Weeks

16

24

New York

452

Deaths per 100,000

New York City began quarantine measures very early—11 days before deaths spiked. The city had the lowest death rate on

the Eastern Seaboard.

150

100

50

0

1

8

Weeks

16

24

St. Louis

358

Deaths per 100,000

150

St. Louis had strong social distanc-

ing measures and a low total death rate. The city successfully delayed its peak in deaths, but faced a sharp increase when restrictions were

temporarily relaxed.

100

50

0

1

8

Weeks

16

24

RILEY D. CHAMPINE, NG STAFF.

SOURCE: Markel H, Lipman HB, Navarro JA, et al. Nonpharmaceutical Interventions

Implemented by US Cities During the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic. JAMA.

Philadelphia

Weekly deaths per 100,000 from 1918 pandemic above the expected rate

Deaths per 100,000 after

24 weeks of pandemic

748

Duration of social

distancing measures

250

San Francisco

200

Philadelphia waited eight days after their death rate began to take off before banning gatherings and closing schools. They endured the highest peak death rate of all cities studied.

673

Deaths per 100,000

150

150

After relaxing social distancing measures,

San Francisco faced

a long second wave of deaths.

100

100

50

50

0

0

1

8

WEEKS

16

24

1

8

WEEKS

16

24

Sep. 11 1918

Feb. 19 1919

St. Louis

New York

358

452

Deaths per 100,000

Deaths per 100,000

New York City began quarantine

measures very early—11 days

before the death rate spiked.

The city had the lowest death

rate on the Eastern Seaboard.

St. Louis had strong social distanc-

ing measures and a low total death

rate. The city successfully delayed

its peak in deaths, but faced a sharp

increase when restrictions were

temporarily relaxed.

150

150

100

100

50

50

0

0

1

8

WEEKS

16

24

1

8

WEEKS

16

24

RILEY D. CHAMPINE, NG STAFF. SOURCE: Markel H, Lipman HB, Navarro JA, et al. Nonpharmaceutical Interventions Implemented by US Cities During the 1918-1919 Influenza Pandemic. JAMA.

In this graphic-driven story, Nat Geo’s Riley Champine and Nina Strochlic illustrated how case counts rose and fell in 36 U.S. cities—revealing how some used quarantine measures to stem the flu’s spread, while others saw their case counts rise precipitously due to a lack of public health measures.

Nat Geo tracked the spread of the virus across the U.S. throughout the year, providing daily case count updates nationwide and down to the county level. By the end of the year, the U.S. recorded a million new cases every four to five days and daily deaths approached 4,000—a sign that people had grown tired of social distancing measures. (Here’s where the coronavirus is spreading across the world.)

View Images

Passengers who flew from the Chinese city of Wuhan—the epicenter of the coronavirus at the time—go through quarantine at Narita airport near Tokyo on January 23, 2020. Seen in the foreground is a thermographic monitor set up to check their body temperatures.

Air travel screeched to a crawl amid global lockdowns this year. But, for some, travel was unavoidable—and screening and safety measures taken by airlines were little consolation to anyone who had to board a flight. In January, Nat Geo took a look at the science behind how viruses spread on a plane and the safest place to sit to avoid infection. Hint: You might want to consider grabbing a window seat from now on.

If there was one thing that terrified Americans as much as the coronavirus last year, it was the arrival of so-called “murder hornets.” In May, Nat Geo’s Doug Main reported that Asian giant hornets—the world’s largest wasps—were spotted in Washington State. Native to East Asia, these insects are known for decimating honeybee colonies and their toxic venom kills an average of 30 to 50 people a year in Japan.

View Images

Asian giant hornets (Vespa mandarinia) have been spotted in Washington State, alarming officials.

But Main cautioned against alarm as efforts to stop the hornets from spreading had already begun—and, in a later piece, documented how our unfounded fear of insects can harm both them and us.

View Images

A Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo, photographed in 2017. In April 2020, five of the zoo's tigers and three of its lions tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19.

Not only did humans give other humans COVID-19; they gave it to animals as well. Natasha Daly discovered five tigers and three lions at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for the coronavirus in the spring. Zoo officials said the big cats likely contracted the virus from an infected but asymptomatic zookeeper. Humans also infected minks in Europe, in Canada, and in the United States, leading to mass culls of the animals.

View Images

Working amid global coronavirus fears, a villager labors in a field in China's Jiangxi Provence on February 18, 2020. Some viruses, like those that cause the flu, are seasonal, meaning they spread more easily in warm, dry air. Early on, it was unclear if the novel coronavirus would be similarly impacted.

Early on, it was hoped that warmer weather would weaken and curtail COVID-19. In March, Sarah Gibbens questioned that assumption, saying it arose mainly from knowledge of the flu, which generally strikes hardest in the Northern Hemisphere from October to April or March. Scientists cited closer quarters for humans indoors and a lengthening vitality of the virus in dry cold air as reasons. However, the virus kept plowing through the world, aided by inconsistent adoption of protective measures, throughout the summer and fall as well.

View Images

Doctors look at a lung CT image in a hospital in Yunmeng County, Xiaogan City, in China's central Hubei Province.

In March, we publicized conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease that could make the coronavirus worse. We also showed how the coronavirus can endanger people outside the elderly and infirm. “We cannot say that we care about millions when we don’t care about an individual who may be senior or junior,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization. “Every individual life matters.”

View Images

Doreen Brown, 85, receives the first of two Pfizer/BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine jabs administered at Guy's Hospital in London on Tuesday, December 8, 2020. U.K. health authorities rolled out the first doses of a widely tested and independently reviewed COVID-19 vaccine, starting a global immunization program that is expected to gain momentum as more serums win approval.

All eyes were on the race to develop a COVID-19 vaccine in 2020—and that effort surpassed all expectations with vaccines reaching consumers in record time. Nat Geo has been tracking all of the vaccines in development to provide readers with the latest news on which candidates have been approved, how well they work, and how they’re being distributed in countries around the world.

David Beard contributed to this report.